Gardeners know that when dividing a plant they have to be careful and quick. They must either gently tease out the roots or administer a quick chop with a sharp blade before immediately re-potting the two halves in a nurturing environment to avoid transplant shock.
The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante deals with a division that is neither quick nor gentle. It is a quick read, thank goodness, because the subject matter is disturbing, none of the characters is likeable, and the density of the prose often cloying; but it is not a pleasant nor enjoyable read.
The main character, Olga, suffers a breakdown after her husband leaves her for a younger woman – not an unusual premise; however, her suffering escalates until she can no longer manage her life nor her children’s lives. She is a plant in shock, descending into a toxic hell of self-abasement, obscenity, vicious anger, and overwhelming dysfunction in all areas of her life, roots exposed and withering. No plant can possibly survive in such conditions.
This in itself is difficult to observe without eventually wanting to reach in and at least remove her children from her harmful behavior, but the minute self-observances of her deteriorating abilities, both physical and mental, are truly disturbing and give an insight into how desperate and fragile a person can become when a partner leaves.
At one point, Olga questions how much her husband took of her when he left; all those years of support and love and selflessness in order to help him in his life – another question surely asked by many separated persons – and wonders if this is why she is unable to orient herself to her new situation; that she is an incomplete person because of what he has taken with him as he ripped his roots from hers.
Everything is intertwined down there in their root-ball, everything shared, and when he decides to uproot himself, he not only uproots himself from the ground holding everything stable, but also forcibly rips his roots away from hers. Unless the weaker plant is quickly replanted and nurtured, it will shrivel up and eventually die.
And this is what we suffer through while reading this novel in all its nakedness and obscenity: a plant left with its roots exposed, desperately trying to replant itself before shriveling up and dying. Finding that new pot can be a long process.
But this is not a new story. After all, Edith Wharton has covered this scenario – in a less confrontational manner, to be sure – but with the same message: partners should not rely entirely upon each other, they must develop their own growing plots separately. The plots can be close to each other and over time some roots may become intertwined, but not all. They must be able to support themselves, they must consider carefully just how much they are willing to give up in the name of marital harmony, and they must develop a strong sense of self.
Only then can one plant be uprooted and divided without destroying the other.